Why do so many incredible photographers also look so, so great in front of the camera as well? Take Imogen Cunningham for example, the subject of our latest artist close-up. Presumably for most of the 93 years she spent on this planet (she died in 1976) Imogen didn’t possess a spider-white web of hair and larger than life spectacles propped against a face so richly carved with life-lived that it could have been forged against raging tides. Yet that’s who one instantly thinks of (and sees upon a cursory Google image search) when Imogen Cunningham comes to mind. This little old lady rambling around amongst the flora and fauna with a smile on her face like she’s already kicked the world’s ass and is ready to do so again.
Yet we’re not here to talk about the aesthetic thrills of Cunningham’s face, we’re here to talk about her photography - specifically those botanical images that once seen set a new standard for capturing the dark romance and scientific wonder of our flower friends.
Cunningham was the principal founder of Group f/64, a collective of San Francisco photographers who, in the early 1930s, looked to promote a new modernist aesthetic over the pictorial photographic style that many of their contemporaries remained devoted to. Rather than imbue their images with the overly fussy impositions of the pictorialists, their modernist leanings were built on precisely exposed images of natural forms and found objects.
This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Cunningham’s own focus on florals, in works that preceded the formation of Group f/64. It was upon moving in 1920 to California, with its by turns lush and arid landscapes, that Cunningham started taking a serious interest in botanical photography. Flowers captivated her in particular, and between 1923 and ’25 she worked almost exclusively on an in-depth study of the magnolia flower. These images exemplified Cunningham’s approach: extreme close-ups shot (of course) in rich, crisp black and white. She titled the work Tower Of Jewels, a fitting descriptor considering the intensive, miniscule details she captured: at such scale, the natural beauty of the flower begins to mimic the artistry of cut gems. Stamens unfurl themselves with luxuriant ease from the magnolia’s bud, an evocation almost of the intricate line work that so defined the art nouveau period in which Cunningham was working.
Throughout her long and vibrant life, Cunningham returned to botany for inspiration (nudes and industrial landscapes played muse to other periods in her output). In her own way, there was a proto-feminism at play in the way Cunningham would frequently use her photography of beautiful objects to emphasise the unique perspective that a female gaze can bring when allowed to flourish as much as the plants in her unforgettable photographs.